Barcelona climbed to the top of the La Liga table just before the World Cup break
Espanyol, their rivals from across the city, are just above the relegation zone
Barcelona can resume their campaign with a victory over their neighbors at home
The odds for Barcelona vs Espanyol are from the FanDuel sportsbook, where new customers will receive a $1000 no-sweat first bet after creating an account.
The Blaugrana have been solid defensively this season and they can continue to impress in that regard here.
Back Barcelona to beat Espanyol and keep a clean sheet this weekend. (+110)
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It is fair to say the first part of the 2022/23 season was a mixed bag for Barcelona. The biggest event was their failure to advance beyond the group stage of the Champions League for the second campaign on the bounce. Xavi Hernandez’s side finished below Bayern Munich and Inter, which means they will be playing Europa League soccer next year.
That is a huge blow in two respects. First, Barcelona will miss out on a large chunk of revenue that comes from being involved in the last 16 of the Champions League. That is particularly concerning given the club’s well-documented financial issues.
Just as significant as profit is prestige. Barcelona are five-time European champions and they begin every season with the objective of being crowned kings of the continent. To miss out on the knockout phase in back-to-back years is massively disappointing for a club of their size.
Yet it was not all doom and gloom before World Cup 2022. When the La Liga season resumes this weekend, Barcelona will be top of the table. They climbed to the summit of the standings shortly before the break for Qatar, when Real Madrid dropped points in meetings with Girona and Rayo Vallecano to allow their arch-rivals to move ahead of them.
Winning the title would make up for their premature exit from the Champions League, although there is a long way to go before Barcelona can even contemplate lifting the trophy. Madrid remain hot on their heels and in the only Clasico of the campaign so far, Carlo Ancelotti’s side emerged triumphant very comfortably.
The Catalans have not finished first in Spain since 2019, and they failed to win a trophy in two of the last three seasons. Even a club legend like Xavi is under pressure to deliver silverware this term.
Espanyol are used to operating in Barcelona’s shadow. Catalonia’s second club have never won the La Liga title, and the most recent of their four victories in the Copa del Rey came in 2006. Whereas Barcelona are synonymous with the cause of Catalan nationalism, Espanyol have always had stronger ties to Madrid and the idea of ‘Spanishness’.
Indeed, if anything makes this rivalry interesting it is politics. On the pitch, it is far too one-sided to be captivating. Barcelona have won 12 of their last 14 meetings with the club from across the city. Their last defeat came back in 2018. The best online sportsbooks consider it extremely unlikely that Barcelona will lose to their neighbors on Saturday.
Whereas Xavi’s side are targeting the title, Espanyol’s objectives are much more modest. Having won just two of their first 14 matches this season, they sit just a point clear of the drop zone going into the fixtures on New Year’s weekend. It is entirely possible that they will begin 2023 in the bottom three.
After winning promotion in 2021, Espanyol secured a 14th-place finish last time out, staying up by a margin of four points. They still changed their manager in the summer, and it is fair to say that Diego Martinez - a manager with a solid reputation in Spanish soccer - has not quite got all of his ideas across yet.
Avoiding relegation would represent success for Espanyol this season, even if they do not improve upon their position in last year’s table. But with Sevilla and Celta Vigo (two of the teams below them) likely to improve, Martinez’s men have a big fight ahead of them.
When Barcelona added Robert Lewandowski and Raphinha to a pool of attackers that already included Ousmane Dembele, Ferran Torres and Ansu Fati, the assumption was that the forward line would be the strong point of Xavi’s team.
It has certainly delivered, with Lewandowski leading the race to be the La Liga top scorer and Dembele playing some of the best soccer of his Barcelona career to date. No team has scored more goals than the Blaugrana, although Madrid have matched their tally of 33 in 14 outings.
Somewhat surprisingly, it is Barcelona’s defense that sets them apart. They have conceded just five goals so far, which works out as 0.36 per game. Only Real Sociedad, Real Madrid, and Osasuna have found a way to breach their backline - and two of those sides did it in defeat. Barcelona have kept a clean sheet in 79 percent of their matches to date.
We fancy their chances of registering another shut-out this weekend. Espanyol are heavily reliant on Joselu for goals - only Lewandowski, Vedat Muqiri, and Borja Iglesias have found the back of the net more often - so if Barcelona can keep him under wraps they will be well on their way to a 12th clean sheet of the campaign.
More generally, Xavi’s side should prove too strong for the city of Barcelona’s other club, so go for a home win to nil here.
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Teams: Barcelona vs Espanyol
Location: Camp Nou, Barcelona Spain
Time: Saturday 31 December, 8:00 AM, EST
How to Watch: ESPN+
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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